It was just before midday. A warm winter morning in Cape Town. I was happy to see the familiar sights and the busy roads. The traffic on Tennant Street had subsided. Students were walking to campus from town and the residences, crossing the road, as if they were in a hurry. Some crossing the road in between the stopped row of cars, before the traffic lights turned green, giving them the right of way. The walk to the demarcated crossing lines, completely dismissed.
The white corolla cab we were travelling in, was still facing Table Mountain. The driver started indicating to the left, then made his way to the entrance. He was stopped by the boom gate at the entrance. As he stopped the car in front of the gate, a security guard wearing matching navy pants, shirt, and cap, with black shoes; emerged from the control room. He had a beige clipboard and pen in hand. He walked towards the driver's door, and bent down to the level of the window. I leaned forward, protruded my face, and greeted the security guard. I showed him my access card, and uttered, "Drop off". With that he waved, turned around and went to lift the boom gate. We proceeded into campus.
The cab passed the entrance on the right to the parking lot where I usually parked my car. It stopped close to the main entrance of the Engineering Building. I had not been to my office for over four months. Since we closed university at the end of the second semester, for the festive season break in mid-December last year. Though it was familiar, this place felt strange, like it was a new world to me.
The cab parked in front of the faded red brick-coloured stairs, that led to the double-glass door which was the entrance to the reception of the building. I could see figures dressed in the navy uniforms, doing access control at the door. They were checking student-cards, and signing in visitors. I had never noticed how long and wide these stairs are, I thought to myself.
My sister, Tuli was already getting the wheelchair out of the boot, she needed no marching orders, she never does. It is like being my pillar is engraved within her. The blessing that is all my sisters.
Mbali, my cousin, went around the car, to the passenger’s seat where I was seating, to assist. My heart started racing, I was about to transfer from the car seat to the wheelchair, in full view of strangers. There was no room for mistakes, falling was not an option. Performance anxiety perhaps.
Tuli parked the wheelchair between the open door of the car and me, checked that the breaks were secured, then stood behind the chair. Mbali stood between the open door and the wheelchair facing me, with a reassurance that said, 'I've got you'.
No words were exchanged. None were necessary. I began to transfer.
I turned my body to face the formation, placing my strong left foot out of the car, onto the paved surface. I bent down slightly, and reached across to my right weak leg, assist it to join my other leg. With both legs outside the car, with the left leg firmly placed on the ground, I reached over and grabbed the armrest of the wheelchair for balance. I took a deep breath, as if I was looking for strength somewhere inside of me, to get on my feet. I summoned the strength, and with another deep breath, I stood up. Leaning heavily on my left strong leg, and the armrest. Mbali was on my right, I was breathing heavily, I hesitantly released my hand from the armrest, and swiftly placed my body onto the wheelchair. My legs dragging on the ground, following the direction of the body as I sat. I grabbed hold of the other armrest with my left hand. A moment passed.
I did not fall. My feet were on solid ground. I spotted my phone and quickly took it from the side compartment of the car door, and passed it to Mbali. Releasing the breaks, Tuli reversed the wheelchair slightly, using the gained space to release the footrests that were on each side of the chair to the front. I placed the strong left leg on the left footrest plate. Reached over with my left hand to lift up my right foot, placing it on the right footrest plate. I pushed back the black cotton straps that were supposed to secure my feet onto the footrests. I preferred my feet unstrapped.
We thanked the cab driver, and he said his goodbyes. The hundred and eighty rands cab fee was deducted from my bank card, there was no need for any cash exchange. As the cab drove away, we followed suit. I was rolled away from the staircase, towards the ramp which was situated on the far right of the entrance. We eventually reached the ramp, turned into it, and made our way up to the entrance. I began to see one or two familiar faces at the entrance in the navy uniform, but they did not see me. I mean they saw me, but they didn't really see me. They didn't recognise me, so there was none of the usual courtesies and no smiles were exchanged. I guess they did not expect me to be down there on the chair. I dismissed it. The access card did the magic, and we were given the green light.
We proceeded away from the staircase that I usually took to get to the top floor, where my office was. We made our way towards the elevator which was at the end of the tunnel in the opposite direction facing the ocean. We reached the elevator, and discovered that it was 'Out Of Order'. It was not working. We had to find our bearing so that I could locate another elevator to access the fourth floor.
I remembered that there was a wheelchair elevator that we could access through the Marketing Department. That elevator stopped by the bathroom closest to my office. That was the best option. I wondered why I did not think of it first.
We made our way to the Marketing Department, and started the search to locate the elevator. When we finally arrived at the elevator, it had a handwritten "Out of order" note stuck on its door. My heart sank. I felt a heaviness come on me, that I could not allow at that moment. There had to be another way. I started thinking of an alternative way.
In another department the elevator was also not working. Yes, a third elevator which was situated in a completely different department was also 'out of order'. That was my last option.
I disappeared into my thoughts, and into my emotions. I was no longer there anymore, as my sister rolled me back to the staircase that we had rolled away from when we entered the building. By this time, there were two navy uniforms that were escorting us, and talking with Tuli and Mbali. I was physically there, but I was too busy fighting the tears that were burning my eyes, ready to roll down my face. I was processing the stares that looked down at me at every turn, in each department, during this failed adventure of accessing the fourth floor. My heart was drenched in so much pain.
Suddenly the wheelchair stopped. In front of me was the staircase I had taken countless times, several times a day, in my high-heels, effortlessly. Suddenly, as I sat on the wheelchair, the stairs were insurmountable.
The guys in the navy uniforms offered to carry me up the staircase. I could see the pity in their eyes. The stairs and the stares were too much. They suggested that Mbali and Tuli were to follow them up with the wheelchair, so I could be placed on it at the top of the stairs. The thought of being carried up those stairs brought the hot stream of tears flooding down my face, neck and top. The hot floods were uncontrollable, and I cried from the gut of my soul.